Plant researchers who want to study the roots of growing plants have a problem: Those roots are obscured by the soil in which the plant grows. But no more hiding. Now researchers have designed a transparent soil that lets them look at not only roots but also the microbes, good and bad, that colonize them.
It doesn’t have a brain, but the Venus fly trap
can still use short-term memory.
We tend to treat plants like passive objects that can ornament a home or yard, although perhaps requiring a bit more care than, say, a vase. But plants are in fact complex organisms that can interact with their environment, sense smells and sounds, communicate with each other and with insects, and even process information.
To see how plants’ abilities stack up in comparison with human sensing and thinking, Scientific American interviewed Daniel Chamovitz, a plant biologist and author of What a Plant Knows. In addition to plants’ unexpected abilities, Chamovitz shares that they have some downright improbable skills, skills that tend to require a brain—skills like memory.
Peering inside an ancient piece of amber, scientists have uncovered the oldest direct evidence of pollination: insects covered in pollen grains, likely from a gingko tree, from between 105 and 110 million years ago. These insects—a new genus of thrips, insects that still scuttle around today—had likely gathered pollen for food, trailing it from plant to plant along the way. To get an even closer look at the specimens (without cracking open the amber), the researchers took the lump to the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility. There, they used synchrotron X-ray tomography to generate a detailed 3-D image of the bugs, revealing tiny, specialized hairs they used to collect pollen grains (which are shown here in yellow).
Biologists have recently had cause to wonder whether the molecules they know and love are pulling some quantum trickery while they’re not looking: one of the large proteins that captures light in photosynthesis was observed in several studies apparently using coherence, one of the hallmarks of quantum mechanics, to determine the best possible route for shunting energy through its atoms. Now, further experiments that use lasers to tweak such proteins and observe their response have provided more evidence that this is happening—an exciting indication that the strange laws of quantum mechanics can affect the behaviors of large agglomerations of atoms.
Our own Sean Carroll of Cosmic Variance explained how coherence works when this phenomenon was observed in real plants at room temperature last year: Read More
A botanist has discovered a new species of plant in eastern Brazil whose branches bend down upon bearing fruit and deposit seeds on the ground, often burying them in a covering of soft soil or moss. This trick is an example of geocarpy, a rare adaptation to survival in harsh or short-lived environments with small favorable patches. The adaptation ensures seedlings germinate near their parents, helping them stay within the choice spots or microclimates in which they thrive. One well-known practitioner of geocarpy is the peanut, which also buries its fruit in the soil [PDF].
Some plants want ample water and sunshine. The plant Nepenthes rafflesiana, however, desires the droppings of Hardwicke’s woolly bats.
The carnivorous plant and the key-sized tiny bat live on the Indonesian island of Borneo, where their unusual arrangement has blossomed. Scientists who placed trackers on the backs of the bats found that they nap away their days nestled in the pitcher of this pitcher plant, and they use it as their personal commode. That’s just fine for the pitcher plant, which doesn’t trap as many bugs as its relatives, but makes up for it by deriving one-third of its nutrients from bat excrement.
“It’s totally unexpected,” said Ulmar Grafe, an associate professor at the Universiti Brunei Darussalam who led the study. “There’s a lot of animal-plant mutualisms, but this one is where the animal gives a nutrient to a plant. Usually it’s the other way around.” [Reuters]
You might think it’d be dangerous for bats to lay around in a plant’s pitcher, where they could plummet into the gooey nectar the plant uses to trap and eat insects. But, in fact, the pitcher is shaped just right so that the bats can’t fall through. Says Grafe:
Humans didn’t begin major agriculture until about 10,000 years ago. But 20,000 years before that they were grinding their own flour, a new study (in press) suggests, adding more proof that our forebears were eating the beginnings of a more balanced diet while still roving as hunter-gatherers.
Anna Revedin’s team says in today’s Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that they found traces evidence of flour still stuck in 30,000-year-old stones the team found in Russia, Italy, and the Czech Republic.
The flour, likely suitable for making flatbread or cakes, didn’t just give stone age people some dinnertime variety. Because it could be stored in dried form, flour would have given them greater independence from environmental and seasonal circumstance. [Wired.com]
The stones themselves appear to have been shaped for grinding, like an archaic mortar and pestle.